An Homage to Catalan Cooking
By: David Leigh
David has lived in Catalonia for more than a decade, first in Barcelona and now in the forests of la Selva. When not enjoying the food he runs a website specialising in providing FC Barcelona tickets to visitors to Barcelona.
If you think of food in Spain you’ll probably immediately think of the ubiquitous paella, the delicious rice dish that originates from Valencia that in its best known form contains a variety of seafood; your mind may also turn to tapas, those tasty morsels traditionally served on a small plate to accompany a drink and originally used – or so the legend goes – to cover your drink and keep the flies out; “tapa” simply means “cover” in Spanish.
Paella in particular can be quite variable, partially due to the fact that many bars that serve lunchtime fixed price menus serve ready made versions of the dish that bear no resemblance at all to the flavour of one that has been well made. And while many tourist restaurants serve passable versions of the dish, the secret to finding the best paellas is simply to learn where the locals go to eat it.
Standard tapas include “patatas bravas”, which are sautéed potatoes served covered in a spicy sauce, olives, calamari and anchovies, and visitors are also sometimes surprised to find cold cubes of Spanish omelette on the menu. Many tapas bars are Galician and a popular dish you’ll see on the menu is octopus.
Quite different are Basque style tapas, which are served all over the country, they are often served on bread; stuffed peppers, grilled fish and other delights are set on the counter in bars and served with a cocktail stick. Simply grab a plate, choose one of the dishes and keep the stick; your bill at the end of the night will depend on the number and sizes of the sticks left on your plate.
Living in Catalona, as I have done for the last ten years, some of my favourite dishes are local specialities. Three things spring to mind that may appear simple pleasures, but I always look forward to eating.
The first is the botifara, a pork sausage spiced with pepper that is one of the staples of Catalan cooking. While a simple sausage may not seem particularly exciting, they are exceptionally high quality and a big improvement on the standard banger found in UK supermarkets.
The second also doesn’t sound particularly exciting; pa amb tomàquet (“bread with tomato” in Catalan) is served as a side dish and simply consists of bread, often toasted, which has been rubbed with overripe tomato, salted and drizzled with olive oil. If you order a sandwich from a bar in Barcelona you’ll often find that you are served a baguette that, rather than buttered, has tomato and olive oil as well as the filling.
However, my absolute favourite dish is “calçots”, which are specially grown spring onions that are grilled. To eat them you strip off the outer, charred layers of the onion, dip it in a special sauce, and eat with your fingers. Delicious, the sweetness of the onion, the smokiness, and the sauce all combining to raise the humble onion to high cuisine.
Well, perhaps not, as diners are often given a bib to make sure they don’t get covered in charred onion and sauce, as well as sometimes provided plastic gloves as your hands get filthy. It was something I saw being eaten some 25 years ago when visiting once in February, and is in season between October and May; intrigued by something unidentifiable being served on curved roof tiles, I ordered the dish too and since then my entire family have become converts.
The dish originates from Valls, in the south of Catalonia near Tarragona. During the last weekend of January each year the town is turned over to the “calçotada” and they have demonstrations of how to make the sauce, how the calçots are grown – apparently they are planted for a period, dug up and stored in the dark, then replanted with a “boot” of soil around them so the base of the onion remains free of sunlight – and a calçot eating contest in which contestants have an hour to eat as many as they can, with the winner consuming well over 100! They also cook calçots in the town’s squares and you can buy 12 calçots, pa amb tomàquet and a half bottle of wine for around 12 euros – a bargain.
You’ll see many restaurants throughout Catalonia offer calçots on the menu, or a “calçotada”, which consists of a calçot starter and grilled meats for the main course. This is often too much even for me and so I often order the calçots as a starter with something light to follow up, such as mussels.